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On Raising the Bar on the Men in My Life (With Love)

I have historically been what they call a guy’s girl. Chances are good that if you are a man and reading this I have schooled you at some point or another, I know more about beer and whisky and cigars than you do, I probably have given you pretty clear advice about women in comic form, I know more about comedy than you do, and you’ve heard me cuss like a sailor. This is largely because I am a walking encyclopedia, but that’s a separate issue. I’ve been told that I was too smart, too badass, and not feminine enough by most of the men in my friend circle. I majored in a male dominated area of history; I am loud and brass and prepared to go to war in the classroom. Most of my mentors have been men. Until very recently I had more male friends than I did female friends. In my female friend circle I am the girl telling my girlfriends to be a BAMF and to refuse to put up with any business. I tell them to be their strongest selves. So given that background you are probably imagining that in a relationship with men, I am if not at least domineering, a total tomboy who runs the show. You couldn’t be more wrong

I am blessed to be the woman a lot of people call for honest and loving advice, I am grateful for the fact that among my many gifts I am capable of making people comfortable enough to be the person they can be vulnerable with and the person they can trust to “keep it real.” I take my job really seriously. So recently I spent a few nights having the same conversation with my each of my girlfriends. Now, at this point in my life I have more girlfriends than male friends, for reasons I probably don’t need to know. The girlfriends I’ve accumulated over the years are badass. You have to be to be friends with me, it’s a requirement, and I am too intense for anything else. Most of them are the kinds of girls that have more male friends than female friends. Most of them are in male dominated fields. They are teachers, they are in law school, researchers, coders, engineers, artists. Most of them have overcome backgrounds that would crush the average human being. They are brilliant. They are beautiful. In a business setting they take no prisoners. But they are the not controlling girl in their relationships either.

We like pink. We bake. We play with children. Most of us have very feminine wardrobes. And all of us have had to sit through the same lecture in the last week (whether from me or from them) about not being a wuss in a relationship. That’s right. All of my girlfriends, me included, allow themselves to be weakened by men. The truth is that I shouldn’t have to feel like my strength and femininity are incongruent. Or that our desire to be kind and gentle is a liability. And yet, all of us have historically become docile shadows of our former selves in the relationship. And all of us have finally reached the age where we are seeing that this is happening.

We go for outwardly strong men, which makes sense. The assumption is that we need men who are as strong as us. Although, before this thought dominates the responses to this, since I was a sophomore in college every guy I have dated has been the kind of guy that swears up and down that he doesn’t understand why women go for jerks; and they’ve managed to engage in largely the same behavior that the men before them did. Adult relationships don’t involve one person dominating the other. And all of us want the same thing; partnership. And yet, we keep perpetrating the same pattern. When it was just me, I explained it with my personal history; I was adjusting to having been severely emotionally, physically and sexually abused. I didn’t grow up with a dad (though now I have the greatest step-dad on the planet). Men walked out on me. As I grew up, and I grew up quickly, dudes told me that I was intimidating, that I was too smart, too tough, and too hard. Their words weighed on me. Like a good social scientist I saw the pattern and I adjusted accordingly. In a relationship, I decided, I would be soft, kind, gentle. And these are all personality traits that are real parts of me. I genuinely don’t want to have to be controlling. One of the number one requirements for the man in my life is that I shouldn’t have to teach him or coerce him into being nice. He should just do it because he consciously chooses to be a good human being, because I consciously choose that too and also because I’ve been through enough in my life without my choosing to be a jerk and to surround myself with jerks. I love kittens, pretty things, I wear dresses. These are all real. Like all women, I am a mix of these traits. I am both the whisky drinking sailor mouth and the girl whose favorite dress is pink and has polka dots and whose favorite activity is baking. Just so that we are clear, given my class background, that shouldn’t be confusing to anyone. Just as it shouldn’t be confusing that I have girlfriends who run the show at work and then come home and make elaborate dinners for their boyfriends. That’s just called being a grown woman.

But there is a pattern. This isn’t just me. This keeps happening again and again with my girlfriends. Some of it is our fault; we don’t see what is happening. We don’t stand up for ourselves. We don’t hold men to high enough standards. We compromise on things we have no business compromising on. But some of this is also the men.
When we make demands they tell us we are being crazy and irrational. My group of girlfriends is a highly accomplished professional bunch; we don’t want to be irrational so we adjust. When we have complaints or concerns we are told we are too demanding, and we think maybe we are, so we stop making demands. When we do romantic and cute things over and over again that aren’t reciprocated the men tell us that we shouldn’t need those things and we agree that Valentine’s day and romance is a social construction but we do the things we do because we were paying attention in kindergarten and it’s just nice. We do this anyway as friends. I send my girlfriends epic love letters about how amazing and beautiful they are. We take care of each other when sick. We buy each other gifts and snacks. We compliment each other, emotionally support each other. And then the men in our lives tell us we shouldn’t need compliments or that we ask for too much emotional support. The men in our lives rely on our gay male friends to do their job (although obviously my gay husband is exemplary and also he and I are in a serious, life-long relationship that all straight men now have to compete with).

There is a term for what is happening here. We are being gas lighted. This means that men are convincing us we are insane so that they never have to give us what we need. None of my girlfriends are insane. The men our age just need to step up their game. We emotionally support them when they are insecure, they should support us. We excuse their moodiness when they are stressed, but we never allow ourselves to have emotions. I think as bright women we are more susceptible to this because we can argue the man’s side just as well as our own, we can rationalize and argue anything.

I love my male friends. They are incredibly good people, by and large. They have been good to me over the years, and yet I have watched most them do this to the women in their lives. It’s time it stops. It’s time we raise the bar and ask men that they live up to the men they are capable of being. The teachers reading this know that standards and expectations matter, and yet we keep lowering ours for grown men. This goes as well for the men I know who are reading this that aren’t that stoked about the incredibly sweet girl they are dating and yet continue to let her take care of them instead of growing up and setting her free.

My job as a friend is to help you be the best you can be. That’s what love is. Love is helping each other grow. That’s why I became a teacher, was so that I do something with the absurd amount of love I carry in me. Love is carrying them when it is hard, advising them when things get real, and loving them for who they can be at their best, and holding them every day to that standard. So if I lecture you, it’s because I know you can be better. It’s a choice. It’s time that we recognize that in a relationship that as women we only control that choice for 50 percent of the relationship. I don’t believe this is the best any of the men in my life can do.

As well-educated women we have to navigate a world that wasn’t designed for us. This means that we have to be incredibly conscious of the world we walk around in. It’s time we ask the men to do the same.
If this is harsh, gentlemen, it is only because I love you so much that it breaks my heart every time I watch one of you do this. I understand you are under other pressures, so are we. It’s time to take responsibility for your choices. So many of my male friends like to proclaim to me loudly that they are “grown ass men” and in the words of my theme song (Damn it feels good to be a gangsta) “Real gangsta ass n**** don’t talk much .” It is the behavior of boys to continue to see what they can get away with, the behavior of men is to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. If you didn’t get that, I will say it in the way Mama Charles would “if they have to talk about it, they don’t have it.” I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I just want us to be the strongest we can be. I want the men in my life to be the men they can be.

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